A Place to Call Home


Brodie with his wife, Kelli, and son, Sawyer

Brodie with his wife, Kelli, and son, Sawyer

The Croyles continue to create family for those who might not otherwise find it.

Written by Rosalind Fournier      

Photography by Chuck St. John

 

When Big Oak Ranch, a Christian home for children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned, throws a party to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, the first guest to speak will not be a visiting dignitary, major fundraiser, or even Big Oak founder and executive director John Croyle. Instead it will be the grown version of the teenager who was the first boy to ever call the Ranch home. “He’s going to stand up and say something to the effect of, ‘40 years ago, I lived in that farmhouse over there,’” says Croyle, who has built the Ranch from the ground up into what it is today, caring for some 100 children at any given time. “Then he’ll tell all of our children, ‘I’m now 58—a proud husband, father, and grandfather—and I am also your oldest brother.’”

That man embodies a legacy that has brought Croyle what the one-time Alabama football star considers a lifetime of blessings. It started when Croyle was barely out of college and felt a calling to help hurting children and has blossomed over four decades into the Big Oak Ranch as it stands today. Its Boys’ Ranch in Gadsden has nine residential homes—each with a pair of “houseparents” to provide support, love, and a sense of normalcy—and a transition home for children moving on after high school. The Girls’ Ranch, built in nearby Springville in 1988, has eight residential homes and a transition home. The ministry also acquired Westbrook Christian School in 1990, a privately funded school that educates the children of Big Oak, along with another 537 children from the community at large.

But among the developments that make Croyle the proudest of late has been the addition of two highly dedicated and passionate team members to—or, more accurately, back to—the Big Oak Family: Croyle’s daughter, Reagan, and son, Brodie, who are now poised to take the reigns of Big Oak’s mission far into the future.

 

A Young Man’s Unlikely Choice

A defensive end for the University of Alabama’s 1973 National Championship football team under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Croyle remembers the day he told Coach Bryant about his idea for the Ranch. During his college years, even as he was making headlines for his prowess on the field, he had a transformative experience at 19, when he encountered a young boy whose mother was a prostitute and had effectively made her child into her business manager (to avoid a cruder term). The boy had been enlisted to invite men into their home and collect their payments. Croyle was so deeply affected by the story that he believed even then that his calling was to help this child and others like him who were suffering from tragically damaged—or nonexistent—home lives.

His senior year in college, he faced a decision. He was determined to follow through with his dream of creating a home for abused and neglected children, but his thought was to enter the NFL draft, play pro for a few years, and earn money to build the Ranch. Bryant didn’t see it that way. “Everyone knows that Coach Bryant was very good at motivating people,” Croyle says. “But his greatest gift was finding already motivated people and steering them the way he believed they were meant to go. And so he told me, ‘Your heart’s not in the NFL. It’s just a means to an end. Go build that Ranch you’ve been talking about.’” Croyle made his decision and never looked back. Meanwhile, Bryant agreed to serve on Big Oak’s executive board of directors, write Croyle a letter of commendation, and make a personal donation of $70,000 to build the first residence—the Paul Bryant Home that still houses boys at the Ranch today. He fulfilled all three promises, down to the $70,000 gift. The final thousand came just six days before Bryant died by way of a fan who asked the legendary coach to sign a jersey in exchange for a cash gift to the charity of Bryant’s choice.

 

No Distinctions

Between his mentor’s encouragement and his personal sense of calling, Croyle had the Ranch up and running within weeks of moving home from Tuscaloosa. He has continued to grow the Big Oak family ever since, and meanwhile, started a family of his own—marrying his fiancee, Tee, which was followed by the birth of Reagan and then Brodie. Croyle says that from day one, he raised his children to see all the others as extensions of their own family, something Reagan and Brodie confirm unequivocally. “We came home from the hospital to Big Oak,” Reagan explains. “And I don’t think it was until I got to college that I realized maybe not everybody grows up like that. In so many ways, I think it was idyllic. Going outside to play basketball with my dad or my brother was not just shooting around with them—it was a full five-on-five game, because the other children would see us and join in. That was our normal, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Both siblings count children they grew up with at the Ranch as among their closest friends to this day. One even served in Brodie’s wedding.

There is no glossing over the fact that the children who come to live at the Ranch have suffered unspeakable mistreatment in the past. One was left sitting at a corner bench in her hometown and told to wait until her mother returned; the mother never did. Others suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family members. Still more have simply been driven to the Ranch and left without explanation. Knowing what he knows about the adults who committed these atrocities—plenty of whom he’s encountered in person, at least in a courtroom—Croyle says he’s got it in him to “rip their hearts out, easily, and smile while I’m doing it.

“But here’s the deal,” he continues. “God called me to go get that little girl or boy. He didn’t call us to go after the perpetrators. They will have to answer to God. I’m going to have to answer, did I go get that girl or boy and change their life? That’s our calling.” And Croyle encourages people to come and see the lives that are, in fact, being changed. “You can look at our website and get an idea, but we really encourage people to come on out and experience for themselves all that we have going on,” he says.

 

Always Looking Forward

Though his children grew up on the Ranch, it was never a foregone conclusion they would return in any professional capacity. Far from it. Croyle says it was never something he asked of either of them, and in fact, for several years, Reagan and Brodie took dramatically different paths.

After graduating from the University of Alabama, Reagan pursued a modeling career in Europe, working for a top-level agency and enjoying considerable success, but with mixed feelings. “I’ll be honest, a lot of it really feels glamorous and amazing,” she says today. “But growing up the way we did…you don’t do things that are just for yourself. That was ingrained in us. And for me—while there are great people in the industry—it was hard to wake up every day being so me-centered.” A breaking point came when she arrived for a runway show and was presented with a top so revealing “that looked like it was made of Saran Wrap,” she says. Reagan refused to wear it. “They said, ‘You’re not going to work in this industry if you don’t wear stuff like this.’ So I said, ‘Then I’m not going to work in this industry.’” It wasn’t quite true; she continued to get good jobs afterward, but her heart was no longer in it.

She returned to Tuscaloosa, where she earned her master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alabama and worked at Brewer-Porch Children’s Center for children with special needs. Along the way, she married her husband, John David Phillips. One day, John David caught her off guard by saying that he felt their calling was to return to work at Big Oak Ranch. Reagan wasn’t so sure. “I prayed and said, ‘Lord, that’s my dad’s thing and my mom’s thing, not mine,’” she remembers. But the seed had been planted, and not long after, she says she woke up early one morning with full clarity: Caring for children at the Ranch was where she belonged. In 2003, they made the move, and Reagan now serves as Big Oak’s childcare team director.

For Brodie, the road back was no less dramatic. He followed in his dad’s footsteps by heading to Alabama, where he played quarterback, and then played in the NFL for five years before returning to Tuscaloosa and going into the timber business. Then last year, he, too, felt something was missing. “After two months of praying about it, I finally told my wife, Kelli, that I thought God was calling me back to the Ranch.” Kelli broke down crying, he remembers, which terrified him—until he realized they were tears of relief. “She said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you to say that for five years.’” As it turned out, she had even spoken to Brodie’s family about it, but didn’t want to broach the subject until he did. That was last Easter; Brodie and Kelli have been back at Big Oak and living at the Boys’ Ranch for about six or seven months now. They both have fully embraced their call to relieve the suffering of children. Brodie is shadowing his father in the directorship role as they move towards what they call a “soft transition” sometime in the future—with Croyle moving into more of a spokesperson role and helping people around the country who are interested in following Big Oak’s model.

He is also busy writing books as part of a ministry under Big Oak Ranch called Family Builders, whose mission is to help parents build a solid family foundation. One book, The Two-Minute Drill to Manhood: A Proven Game Plan for Raising Sons, was published in 2013, and another, Raising A Princess: 8 Essential Virtues to Teach Your Daughter, is due out this year.

As they contemplate that transition, Croyle feels like he’s had the best of both worlds. He’s watched his children achieve goals outside the Ranch that many parents only dream about—from playing pro football to modeling in Milan—only to see them eventually discover in themselves the same gift he feels he was given to relieve the suffering of children.

While growth and evolution are inevitable, as they have been from the start, Brodie and Reagan bristle at any talk of their “taking it to the next level” or somehow surpassing their father’s goals, because in their mind, he’s already achieved the mission. “We just want to make sure we continue to faithfully do it the way God put a vision in my dad’s heart and mind 40 years ago,” Reagan says.

7 Responses to “A Place to Call Home”

  1. David and Lucy Hodnett says:

    We would like to be involved in fundraising events! David and Lucy Hodnett, 56 Alpine View, Gadsden, AL, 35901. Thank you!

  2. Patricia says:

    My husband and I had the sweet prividilge of having a little sweet ball of fire called Candy in our home for seven years. Candy became one of our own and what I’d give to hear from her today. To know how she’s turned out. If you’re out there Candy we LOVE you!

  3. Julia says:

    What a beautiful story- about heart, gifts, grace. Congratulations to years of loving and caring for children –

    God’s great gift!

  4. Roy says:

    I’m a 1998 graduate who spent only my senior year in high school at the ranch in Gadsden. I remember the day at 18 years old when John looked me in the eye (towering over my 5′ 5″ self) and said as a rule we don’t generally bring in kids your age. But even at 18 years old and a senior in high school he took me in and gave me a home, and a family I cherish to this day. It might have been possible some other way, but I truly feel that if he hadn’t stood in the gap for me all those years ago, I probably would never have finished high school or learned how to have and love my own family.

  5. Rodgie says:

    This is proof that following Gods’ lead, will carry you in the direction God has already built in front of you.

  6. Diana says:

    I would like to know how I could possibly help with these kids also. What types of items might be needed to help? I really have a heart for teenagers in that situation and would like to help. I went to Oxford High in 1974 and remember John coming to my high school for the Christian Athletes program while he was still in college. I still remember to this day what he said and how interested all the kids were with what he had to say. He was such a good Christian example and very impressive. He should be very proud of all he has accomplished.

  7. Hope says:

    What are the legal steps someone must take if there is a child there and family is willing to take them?

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